ANGST OVER APPLES 0
Jim Dolmer, general manager of Bay Grower Inc. inside a controlled atmosphere storage room at the Clarksburg apple sorting and storage facility on Tuesday May 1, 2012. The unusually warm winter and hot and cold spring has local growers on edge, as they wait for the spring apple blossoms to see what kind crop they will get. --JAMES MASTERS /Sun Times staff/QMI Agency
Apple growers in the area have been "beat up big time" by Mother Nature and their pain is going to be shared by others, orchard owners and industry experts say.
The southern Georgian Bay area, which accounts for somewhere between a quarter and a third of the apple production in the province, has a farm gate value of about $20 million, Brian Gilroy, the chair of the Ontario Apple Growers who owns Nighthawk Orchards just south of Meaford, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"If the total value of the crop is about $20 million, you can bet farmers have spent probably $15 million to grow it," he said.
Orchards in the area employ somewhere around 800 people during the busiest part of the season "and those people aren't going to work as much, if at all, this coming fall. It's a big economic driver for the Meaford, Thornbury areas for sure and (there are) spinoff benefits all the way up to Owen Sound and beyond," he said.
Everyone contacted for this story agreed it's going to be a bad year for apple farmers, but just how bad seems open to debate for the next little while.
"Nothing more than 20% of the crop is left," said Ken Wilson, a former apple specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs who now works as a consultant with apple growers.
"That's my humble opinion. We are beat up big time and it has a lot of ramifications," said Wilson.
"We won't need that big collection of offshore workers to pick the crop. We'll have no apples to store or pack. It really has a lot of ramifications for grocery stores, hardware stores, et cetera, et cetera. It's a considerable setback for the area," Wilson said.
However, Jim Dolmer, the general manager of Bay Growers Inc., which packages and sells apple crops for local growers, said it is probably a week too early to make a call on the extent of damage to this year's crop.
After checking the weather forecast for the rest of the week, he predicted the apple trees in the area would be in blossom by Sunday or Monday and that's when growers will have a better idea of the damage done to this year's crop.
But make no mistake, "it's not good here, it's not good," Dolmer said. "It's going to be a very, very poor crop."
Still, he added, "I don't think you can say it's going to be 20% of a crop in Georgian Bay yet. Mother Nature has a kind of remarkable way of recovering."
"We're in uncharted territory," said Gilroy. "It's safe to say this is the worst that the buds and blossoms have been hurt by spring cold in anybody's memory. No one can remember a spring like this one."
The problem started with the heat wave in March. It brought trees out of dormancy about a month earlier than usual.
"The trees started developing, buds started to show on the trees and then bad weather came along and damaged things big time," Wilson said. "The closer we are to bloom the less cool temperatures are required to cause a problem. The further we are before bloom, the cooler you can tolerate before having any injury . . . but that's all done. We've had 15 mornings of freezing temperatures since the trees started to grow and, as a result, we basically have a very poor crop."
When apple trees go into blossom "there's usually five or six flowers" in a bunch, Wilson said.
"The one that's right in the centre, he's called the king bloom. That's the one we'd love to set in apple because it's usually bigger and stronger and brighter and better form. They've all been froze off, they're gone, and the side blooms, they'll also produce an apple, but it usually turns out to be of slightly less quality. Most of those are gone as well so the option to produce a significant crop is gone."
Leslie Huffman, OMAFRA's current provincial apple specialist, said the cool temperatures "did kill some of the important parts" of the apple blossoms.
"I think you'll see the flowers will open and look normal, but they won't have any working parts," she said.
"It's definitely going to be a reduced crop but . . . all the flowers on an apple tree don't come out at the same time," Huffman added. "We have reports that most of the king bloom is definitely gone and some of the first and second side blooms. Whether some of those later blooms will still be viable, we'll have to wait to see."
This year's apple crop woes aren't limited to the southern Georgian Bay area. The warm spell followed by frosts hit all the orchard areas in the province as well as in Michigan, New York state and Pennsylvania.
Some other fruits and vegetables will be delayed by the weather, but they haven't been "devastated" like apples, said Luke Charbonneau of Hi Berry Farms in Saugeen Shores.
"Everything's a little worse for wear" but his strawberries "are in good shape, still look good." His asparagus, while it isn't up yet, "just keeps coming" even if the first spears suffer some damage, he said.
The discouraging news for apple farmers comes just as, according to Huffman, Dolmer and Gilroy, the industry is starting to turn the corner after years of decline.
The Southern Georgian Bay area has about 4,000 acres of apple orchards, down from 6,500 acres "not that long ago," Gilroy said.
Huffman said incremental advances in the industry came because "We started planting new varieties that people really want like honey crisp and ambrosia and we've kind of perfected Macintosh . . . the new small orchards are much more efficient so we can control our costs, especially labour costs . . . we've made some huge advances in better pest management. We've got good quality packing lines, better storage. Everything's been improved."
Transportation costs have also helped local growers, Dolmer said. With the increased cost of diesel fuel, producers here can charge more for their product and still remain competitive with apples trucked in from Washington State. An increase of $2 to $3 a box makes a "huge difference" to producers, he said.
"The corporate chains will support the local apple industry if you give them what they want . . . the newer varieties, the honey crisps of the world, the galas of the world, the ambrosias of the world," Dolmer said.
Gilroy said "about 65% of the (apple) acreage in Ontario is insured . . . and about that percentage of apple farmers as well."
But production insurance for apple crops "is the most complicated and expensive crop insurance plan in Canada," he added. "It works well for some but for others it is not seen as a good business decision 19 years out of 20. This is a year when it would be beneficial."